When does one stand up against a tyrannical government, when speaking out may cost you your life? What role should organized religion play when a once-free country becomes subject to tyrants who do not hesitate to crush all opposition? How should the Church at least at a local level deal with tyrannical governments: get along and survive, confront and perish, or some other path? These are issues implicitly raised in the fascinating book, Three Against Hitler by Rudi Wobbe and Jerry Borrowman (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2002). This well-written account gives Ruddi Wobbe’s experience as a young Mormon teenager in Nazi Germany who had the courage to speak out against the Hitler regime.
Around twenty years ago, I understand there was some publicity about the three Mormon teenagers who heroically stood up and spoke out against the Nazis (even a BYU play). There has been even more publicity in the past couple of years. Much of the discussion was justly centered around the leader of the three, Helmuth Huebener, who was executed by the Nazis. Wobbe’s account gives all the credit to Huebener for their scheme to distribute anti-Nazi leaflets in Hamburg with information gleaned by illegally listening to BBC broadcasts, but also provides important information about Brother Wobbe’s experience as a prisoner of the incredibly brutal Nazis.
A related book that has recently received some attention, even among many non-LDS sources, is When Truth Was Treason: German Youth against Hitler, which is the story of the Helmuth Hübener Group based on the narrative of Karl-Heinz Schnibbe (ed. ad trans. by Blair R. Holmes and Alan F. Keele, Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1996). I have not yet read it, but have read a couple of reviews. You can also look inside part of the book at Amazon.com.
There is also a BYU documentary on the topic, “Truth and Reason.”
Latter-day Saints can be proud that three Mormon youth had the courage and integrity to stand up against Hitler. But what a price they paid! We must also note that these three were exceptions. Many good Saints in Germany believed that Hitler was the hope of Germany, and even when his dark side became apparent, few had the courage to lay down their lives (and often the lives of their families, it must be said) to oppose the tyrant. Many collaborated.
Wobbe does not sugarcoat his discussion of the Church, noting that his own branch president was a vocal supporter of Hitler and threatened those who were not supportive of their government. Sadly, that deceived branch president even put up a sign over their building forbidding Jews to enter — the only LDS building in Germany that was so blighted, according to Wobbe. The pressures to support the government were enormous, the propaganda was compelling, and the risks for any show of rebellion were terrifying. While I can understand what happened, how terrible it is even one branch should fall into such error.
While the response of the German LDS community was not one of united resistance, Wobbe credits the teachings of the Church and of good parents as being what gave the boys courage to take their stand and risk all for the truth. In this case, though, heroism was a purely individual thing. I suspect it’s always going to be that way. Heroes usually don’t come in crowds. Even in the Church, following the crowd may not be the right thing to do.
One German Latter-day Saint I met a few years ago, a man who was a soldier for the Nazi army, offered a different perspective. He told a friend of mine, “Oh, those three boys! If only they had kept their mouths shut, there would not have been so much persecution of the Saints in Germany.” I’m not familiar with the consequences for other Mormons that came from the opposition of the Huebener group. Given the possibly minor impact that their limited distribution of pamphlets had, I suppose one can ask if their opposition was worth the cost to themselves and others. For example, if they were told that listening to the BBC might cost the lives of family members and other Latter-day Saints, would they have done it?
But when there is great evil, good men and women must stand for truth. Sadly, the result is often the spilling of innocent blood. If all the good people of Germany had seen through the deception of the media and spoken out against Hitler, he could not have wielded such power. But once he was fully in control, his machine had the power to slay millions. Was opposition futile? Was it deranged? Was it wrong? Such arguments can be made — but thank goodness for those who showed us that there are ideals worth dying for.
Have we learned anything from history? How will we be judged a hundred years from now? Will future Latter-day Saints shake their heads and wish that their ancestors in our day had spoken up against, say, the slaughter of defenseless people in our midst in the form of abortion? Will Latter-day Saints and other Christians fifty years from now mourn our refusal to speak out boldly against the loss of crucial liberties in the name of providing security, or the implementation of gross brutality in the name of opposing terrorism? Is there any risk of the United States losing the liberties that God has given us? No, really, everything is OK, as long as you’ve got cable TV.
I am in no position to judge those who remained silent. In my heart, I like to think that I would resist and speak out. I suppose most of us would. But the more critical question, perhaps, is what kind of people are we now? Do we stand up for those who are persecuted? Do we risk our comfort to stand up for truth now? Do we understand the principles of liberty and resist those who would limit freedom?
A critical lesson from this story is that evil grows stronger when it is not resisted, and can grow so strong that resistance can virtually guarantee death. Had the many good people of Germany unitedly stood up for the Jews when persecutions began, or had they spoken out when Hitler began usurping powers contrary to their constitution, they might have had a chance. But once Hitler controlled the educational establishment, the media, the military, the police, and all aspects of society, it seemed far too late to succeed — so silence again became the order of the day for most.
Another lesson comes from wondering why the Nazis had such fear of what a few young boys might do. I think the answer comes from Victor Frankl (as I recall), that famous survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, who said that the Nazis actively sought out the few people in each group who showed signs of leadership. They had to be eradicated quickly, for the 5% or less of the population that will stand up and be leaders are the only real dangers – keep them under control or kill them, and the rest of a group can be easily managed. I think this principle is true of many totalitarian states. Would that all our people were leaders.
But how do we deal with the issue of corrupt and evil governments in lands where the Church exists? Do we ask members to take a collision course with their governments, or do we ask them to uphold and sustain tyranny? Can we do anything other than let individuals choose on their own?
As a postscript, Wobbe’s book points to many other heroes besides just those who spoke out against Hitler. After he was captured by the Nazis, Wobbe encountered many other heroes who risked their lives to help him. One man even stood before the gun barrel of a Nazi guard about to kill to Wobbe, and argued successfully for his life. Even in the darkest of times, the light of Christ can lead people to stand as bold and brave sons and daughters of God. Those moments are some of the most poignant in the book, in my opinion. Again, such nobility was a purely individual thing – it did not usually come in groups.